Here's exactly how to cover grays or grown out highlights from home—without messing up.

By Brittany Loggins
June 30, 2020
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Whether you've had a busy month, are traveling, or just forgot to book an appointment with your hair stylist (and now they're booked weeks or months out—yikes), it can be difficult to find the time and cash to get to the salon. Not to mention, with the COVID-19 pandemic, many hair salons are still closed, and those that have reopened are cutting down on the number of customers who are in the shop at any time, in order to social distance and keep their clients and employees safe.

If you're no stranger to coloring your hair, you know that you can expect grays or roots to crop up every four to 12 weeks. But if your schedule won't allow you a trip to see your colorist, there is a temporary fix you can do from the comfort of home. Enter: Root touch-up products, which instantly work to conceal grow out and help stretch out your salon visits. Plus, they won't break the bank.

But how do you get it looking as natural as possible without messing up? Ahead, hair colorists and stylists walk us through how to choose the best shade, exactly how to apply root touch-up, and offer recommendations for temporary dyes, as well as quick-fix sprays and powders.

How to apply root touch-up

Invest in the right tools

When coloring your hair at home, you can't use just any ol' tools. Mark Townsend, a celebrity stylist and Dove spokesperson who frequently works with Dakota Johnson, Gal Gadot, and the Olson twins, recommends picking up a fine-toothed comb, like this Harry Josh Pro Tools Carbon Tail Comb ($20; dermstore.com). The comb helps you to weave through the hair to create small, even sections, and helps to prevent knots and frizz.

“The part and the hairline is primarily where you should be focused," notes Townsend. So, start there and divide the area into smaller sections. After sectioning off the hair, you’re going to need a brush. While some kits come with small brushes for spreading the product, not all of them do. “If you only want to cover your roots or a few grays here and there, and you don’t have an applicator brush, grab a toothbrush,” says celebrity colorist Christophe Robin. “It’ll allow you to target exactly the grays you want to cover without covering your full hair color," he adds. 

The color application

When selecting a shade, it's common for people to think their hair is darker than it actually is. To avoid making this mistake, Robin has a tip: When in doubt between two shades, go for the lighter one.

Once you're ready to apply the color, focus on dabbing it directly onto the scalp, says Kimberly Cannon, a colorist at the Sally Hershberger salons in New York City. "Color spreads as it processes, and if you paint too far down the hair strand, you can overlap onto previously colored hair,” she explains. Your hairline is so fine and sucks up color much quicker than the rest of the hair, so address that last, advises Cannon. "This will help you avoid getting the hair too dark around your face."

If you've previously dyed your hair, chances are, you're familiar with the annoying marks left on skin from the dye post-application. The solution? “I recommend applying a rich cream or balm around your face before doing your roots so it doesn’t stain your skin,” says Robin. 

Root touch-up aftercare

To make your color last, all of our experts suggest that you avoid washing your hair for the longest-lasting color payoff. But if you hate the feel of greasy strands or just finished a sweaty workout, try not to wash your locks for at least 24 hours after the initial application, and be sure to use a color-safe shampoo. Cannon also loves a good color-enhancing mask or gloss. "You can leave these on for up to 20-minutes to really refresh your color, as well as condition," she adds.

While the roots may be your problem area, don't neglect your ends, as you'll want to protect them from the hair dye. “Put some oil or a mask on your lengths to protect them from color pigments while rinsing, especially if you have highlights," says Robin. Be sure to apply a coat from mid-shaft down to the very tips of your ends. Cannon also suggests not washing your hair for at least 24 hours prior to touching up your roots, so that your natural oils will act as a barrier and protect your scalp.

The best root touch-up products

Ready to tackle those grays or grown out highlights? Experts share their favorite root touch-ups to try at home, including powders, gels, and sprays. Keep scrolling for the best color options for every budget—from drugstore picks to salon brands. (The best news: Everything is under $50).

Christophe Robin Temporary Color Gels

Credit: CHRISTOPHE ROBIN

Making clean hair color that he could be proud of was something important to Robin. "I’ve worked on the formulation for over five years to make sure I was offering a clean option and one that would respect the scalp and hair,” says Robin. “They are super easy to apply and come in four shades—yes, only four, but you’ll see, it’s more than enough as it blends in with your natural color and minimizes the risk of picking the wrong shade," he adds. The color washes out after five to seven shampoos, and it doesn’t contain any chemicals that can irritate sensitive scalps. 

While, sure, Robin might be a little bias in recommending these color gels, Cannon also calls herself a fan. She loves how companies are focusing on healthier hair color, and touts this product as one of the "cleanest you can get," since it's free of ammonia, parabens, sulfates, and other harsh ingredients.

Oribe Root Touch-Up Spray

Credit: AMAZON

Adam Livermore, a hairstylist and Oribe educator, would vouch for this root touch-up spray, even if he didn't work with the brand. Why? "It has rice starch in the formula, which works a bit like a dry shampoo, and a UV Absorber that helps prevent further color degradation while strengthening hair fibers," he explains. The bottom line: It instantly cover grays and roots, and refreshes strands (removing excess oil) and makes them stronger.

Livermore suggests holding the bottle about six inches away from your head, and spraying it in quick swipes. “From further away, the spray pattern will be wider and the coverage more sheer. The closer you get to the head, the more focused and pigmented it will be," he points out. “Repeat these steps until you have the coverage you are looking for—two to three swipes should do it,” Livermore adds.

Rita Hazan Root Concealer Touch-Up Spray

Townsend loves this product not only because of the stellar formula—it's free of sulfates, parabens, mineral oil, oxybenzone, and other irritating ingredients, and only contains a teeny tiny bit of fragrance (less than one percent)—but also thanks to the applicator. The nozzle is super small, which allows for precise application and buildable color, notes Townsend.

Also nice: The spray-on color is intended to be removed with one wash, however if you leave it in, the waterproof, transfer-proof formula won't stain your pillow or clothes. 

R + Co Bright Shadows Root Touch-Up

Credit: DERMSTORE

Howard McLaren, co-founder and creative director of R+Co, genuinely loves the brand’s root touch-up for concealing grays and grown out highlights. The formula contains pearl extract, which is rich in amino acids that will keep the hair moisturized and healthy, and also biotin to help stimulate hair growth and make it appear thicker. It's available in seven shades—including red, black, blonde options, and brunette hues—to offer most people in between color appointments a temporary fix.

McLaren's pro tip: “The most important thing is to let the spray set before styling it. Then you can use any tools that you like.” 

Kevin Murphy Retouch Me Root Touch-Up Spray

Credit: AMAZON

Kate Reid, the global COLOR.ME design director, recommends the brand’s Retouch Me spray, if you want a quick, discreet way to conceal roots without messing up your hair color. The super fine pigments in this spray blend seamlessly with your existing shade to hide grow out without the gross, sticky residue. It's lightweight, fast-drying, and comes in four hues. Just shake the bottle well and spray a light mist evenly across the area you wish to cover. (For fuller coverage, just pass over the area a couple times to create a layer.) 

Color Wow Root Cover Up

Credit: AMAZON

While it might look a little different, considering it's a mineral powder as opposed to a spray or dye, this is the at-home root touch-up that Jennifer Lopez swears by, so it must be good. Not to mention, Townsend likes it for those pesky little spots that crop up around your hairline.

The powder contains mica, which helps it blend in while looking naturally dimensional, along with titanium dioxide to add shine to your strands. Don’t worry, even though it’s in a powder form, it’s water-resistant and completely non-transferable (read: it won't come off on your clothes or in bed). It comes in seven different shades on Amazon, and comes with a brush to make application a breeze.

L’Oreal Paris Magic Root Cover Up

Credit: AMAZON

Not all drugstore color solutions are created equal, but Jennifer Covington Bowers, the resident colorist at Hairstory, loves this budget-friendly pick. In addition to being ammonia and peroxide-free (so it's not super drying and won't strip the natural pigment of you hair), this formula is lightweight, not at all sticky, and won't leave gross residue behind on your part or around your hairline, which is perfect if you need a last-minute touch-up before a meeting or date. It immediately covers grays or grown out highlights, and lasts until your next shampoo. 

Dove Brunette Dry Shampoo

Credit: TARGET

Because it is a dry shampoo, this product adds volume and absorbs oil to leave hair looking refreshed without even washing it. But the best thing about this dry shampoo, in particular, is that it adds a brunette tint to give your tresses a boost when your roots or grays are starting to peek through. Townsend gives this formula his stamp of approval, since deposits just enough color—without it coming off on your pillow.

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